White House call for universal pre-K resonates across AFT

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President Obama, doubling down on his State of the Union call for a nation that provides access to universal prekindergarten to all Americans, is winning support throughout the ranks of the AFT.

President Obama with pre-K children

The president visited an early childhood education center in Decatur, Ga., just two days after delivering the State of the Union address and amplified his message about the vital role these programs play in preserving educational opportunity for children, particularly disadvantaged students. The administration is seeking a new federal-state partnership to provide all low- and moderate-income 4-year-old children with high-quality preschool and to expand these programs to reach additional children from middle-class families. The White House also wants to incentivize full-day kindergarten policies, to expand Early Head Start Centers and access to child care providers. Investments would largely be financed through a cost-sharing model with states.

"Even in times of tight budgets, states like Georgia and Oklahoma have worked to make a preschool slot available for nearly every parent who is looking for one for their child," Obama said in Decatur. "They're being staffed with qualified, highly educated teachers," he stressed. "This is not babysitting. This is teaching. This works. We know it works. If you are looking for a good bang for your education buck, this is it right here."

"Investing in early childhood education is among the best investments we can make in a young child's life," AFT president Randi Weingarten said following Obama's remarks. "This one investment has the potential to boost graduation rates, ensure that children build a sound foundation in reading and math, reduce teen pregnancy and even reduce violent crime. It puts our children on a solid path for success both in school and in life.

"President Obama's plan addresses both the quality of the programs and the quantity—ensuring we serve virtually all kids. It injects additional funding while also ensuring small classes, wraparound services, adequate compensation to treat early childhood educators like the professionals they are, and creation of a rich curriculum. The president is absolutely right to say we need to have high standards, a rigorous curriculum and evaluation systems—but we can't imagine that the president is calling for testing 4-year-olds. We hope others do not misinterpret his proposals. The early childhood programs the president highlighted in his State of the Union address—those in Oklahoma City and Washington, D.C.—are robust and age-appropriate. And they certainly are not focused on testing."

Sue BumgarnerAFT member and prekindergarten teacher Susan Bumgarner, top right, joins first lady Michelle Obama for the annual address to Congress

The president's remarks also were enthusiastically received by educators in the AFT frontlines. Prekindergarten teacher Susan Bumgarner of Oklahoma City said, "Preschool is something everybody deserves, and it was thrilling to see this put at the top of the national agenda during the State of the Union." Bumgarner, an AFT building representative at Wilson Arts Integration Elementary School, was seated in first lady Michelle Obama's box for the president's annual address to Congress and was excited to see him stay on this message following the nationally televised address.

"We've had universal pre-K in Oklahoma for years now, and our parents love it. If we generate a groundswell of support and let our people in Congress know how really important this is, I think we have a good chance of winning this at the national level," the prekindergarten teacher said.

Weingarten emphasized that the union "has long been a zealot for expanding access to high-quality early childhood education for every child in America. And while the devil is in the details, the AFT and the 90,000 early childhood educators we represent look forward to working with President Obama to ensure investments in high-quality public early childhood education programs." [Mike Rose, AFT press release/White House photo by Pete Souza]

February 14, 2013